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HELENA (AP) — Jim Villanueva has no trouble remembering why he moved to Stevensville three years ago. All he has to do is gaze at the Bitterroot Mountains or drop a line in the Bitterroot River.

Calling himself a full-time fly fisherman and part-time real estate agent, the transplanted New Jersey man was drawn to the valley by the scenery with its abundant hunting and fishing.

"For me, it's utopia," Villanueva said.

Population boom He is one of nearly 200 people who have made Stevensville one of Montana's fastest-growing cities, according to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Located about 26 miles south of Missoula, the town grew by 10 percent between 2000 and the middle of last year.

Topping the list is Belgrade, which is about eight miles west of Bozeman and has expanded by almost 13 percent in the two-year period to 6,588 residents.

In fact, seven of the state's 10 fastest-growing cities in that time could be considered "bedroom communities" providing homes to people working in nearby larger cities.

It's not surprising more than 700 people moved to Belgrade from 2000 to 2002, said Marty Bakken, a 30-year veteran of the Gallatin Valley real estate market. Belgrade is better buy, he said.

"There's a number of people coming into the Gallatin Valley and many of those can't afford to live in Bozeman," he said. "A lot of young people who in the past would rent, can now buy a home for no more money than the rental cost."

Land is cheaper in Belgrade, partly because the city doesn't charge an "impact fee" to cover the effects of additional housing on water, sewer and fire services as Bozeman does, Bakken said.

A housing lot goes for $35,000 in Belgrade, but the cheapest in Bozeman is $50,000, he said. As a result, the median price of a house in Bozeman is $162,000, compared with $136,250 in Belgrade.

Ray Atteberry, another real estate agent for nearly three decades in Bozeman, said Belgrade also is flourishing because it has made itself the agribusiness center of the valley with a healthy dose of farm implement dealers and grain elevators.

Location, location, location As for Stevensville, its blessing is location, Villanueva said.

While many of the residents do commute to Missoula for work, there's a growing number of retirees and people with home-based businesses moving in, Villanueva said.

"People like the smaller towns, especially the transplants," he added.

Maureen McNulty, who owns a local real estate firm, said newcomers like the climate and the beauty of the valley, as well as the proximity to Missoula.

"It's a little bit of heaven," she said. "They're looking for a beautiful setting close to a larger city. People want to be a little bit out, but they want accessibility too."

But the population growth in Belgrade and Stevensville is nothing new.

Between 1990 and 1993, Belgrade grew by slightly more than 12 percent. It ballooned by another 25 percent from 1994 and 1999.

Stevensville's population increased by nearly 27 percent in the first three years of the 1990s. In the next six years, it slowed down a little with growth of 22 percent.

Not all of Montana has rising population, the Census Bureau reported. Of 131 places listed, 45 grew, six remained the same and 80 declined in the two years.

The list of cities and towns with the biggest losses reads like a roster of rural Montana farm communities — Medicine Lake, Geraldine, Chester, Sidney, Big Sandy, Malta and Opheim.

Hysham, the seat of Treasure County between Billings and Miles City, dropped the fastest from 2000 to 2002. Losing 27 of its 327 residents accounted for just over 8 percent of the town's population.

"It's an older community," said county Commissioner Mack Cole. "People live there are older, their children are gone. There's very few families coming in. There's just no jobs."

Businesses don't survive or thrive because Billings, the state's largest city, is a mere hour's drive down the interstate for shoppers, he said. Small area farms and ranches have been bought up and turned into corporate enterprises that buy most supplies in the cities or directly from manufacturers, Cole added.

"It's a small, strictly agricultural community," he said of Hysham. "People either move to Billings or, if they get really old, they go into assisted living or they die."

And the town is unlikely to change, Cole said. "The future is about what is now."

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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